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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 299

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (09:31): The opposition opposes this motion. The effect of the motion will be to significantly constrain the capacity of the estimates committees next week to examine portfolios. In particular, that will occur as a result of the reallocation of responsibilities for tertiary education into the economics committee without any compensating allocation of additional time for the examination of the economics agencies. That is a disgrace.

As recently as yesterday the Prime Minister said during question time in the other place that she wanted the debate this year to be about the economy. She said: 'Bring it on. We want the debate this year to be about the economy'. This is one of those rare occasions where there is unanimity between the government and the opposition, because we in the opposition would like nothing better than for the political debate throughout 2012 and potentially—if the government does not collapse in the meantime—into 2013 to be foursquare about the economy. Yet the very next morning after the Prime Minister made that declara­tion, what does the government do here in the Senate? It moves what appears on the face of it to be an innocuous procedural resolution which will significantly constrain the capacity of this parliament—and in particular of the Senate through the Senate estimates committees—to debate the economy by examining the Treasury and the economic agencies.

This motion bizarrely proposes that examination of the tertiary education and vocational education and training portfolios be moved from the education committee—or, to give the committee its full title, the Senate Education, Employment and Work­place Relations Legislation Committee—and placed in the Senate Economics Legislation Committee. I served for five years as the chair of the Senate economics committee, and I know better than most people in this chamber just how heavy the work of the economics committee is. The Senate eco­nomics committee examines the Treasury. It examines all of the great agencies of economic regulation: the Australian Compe­tition and Consumer Commission, ASIC, APRA and various other economic agencies. It examines, importantly, the Australian Taxation Office. The entire range of fiscal, macroeconomic and microeconomic policy of the government is exposed three times a year for public view and parliamentary scru­tiny before the Senate economics committee.

As all of us in this chamber know from our experience as participants in the estimates process, there is always a great deal of time pressure. I venture to say that in no committee are the time pressures so acute as they are in the Senate economics committee—not merely because of the centrality of economic policy to the political debate and not merely because of the multiplicity of agencies that report to that committee but also because of the extremely technical character of the evidence that must be adduced and examined in that committee. I do not remember a time in government or in opposition when the Senate economics committee had enough time to do its work. At the very time when the government says it wants to focus the debate foursquare on the economy, it allocates time away from scru­tiny in the economics committee by building into its program the examination of agencies within the tertiary education sphere—which are perfectly well accommodated and have always been accommodated where they ought to be—in the education, employment and workplace relations committee.

The lack of interest of the Gillard government in education is notorious. It was made manifest shortly after the 2010 election when the Prime Minister announced her new ministerial line-up. For the first time in recent Australian history—for the first time in the half a century since the coalition government of Sir Robert Menzies recognised education as a Commonwealth priority by appointing then Senator John Gorton as the minister for education in the early 1960s—we had an Australian gover­ment without a minister for education. I say it again: when the Gillard ministerial line-up was announced after the 2010 election, for the first time in half a century there was no member of the government described as the minister for education. We had the hapless Mr Peter Garrett, who was described as the minister for Schools, Early Childhood and Youth, and we had our friend Senator Evans, who was described as the Minister for Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations. You might think to yourself, 'Schools are obviously part of education. Senator Brandis is engaged in a quibble here.' But there was no minister with responsibility for tertiary education. There was not even a mention in the portfolio title or the departmental name. If I could let you in on a secret, Mr Deputy President, that is one of the many reasons why my friend Senator Mason, when he was made a shadow minister, was given the title 'minister for universities and research'. Whereas the coalition is interested in universities—no-one more so than Senator Mason—the government's indifference to the university sector was manifest in the fact that there was not even a minister with ministerial responsi­bility for it. Shamed by that act of inadvert­ence, the government had to change the titles of Mr Garrett and Senator Evans. So, as an afterthought, Mr Garrett was called the Minister for Education, Schools, Early Childhood and Youth, and Senator Evans had the words 'tertiary education' added to his portfolio responsibilities as Minister for Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations. We know that as a victim of the flailing knife of the Prime Minister he has lost a lot of that portfolio in more recent times.

The Australian people who are listening to this broadcast this morning need to know that when Julia Gillard, who prides herself on being a Prime Minister for whom education is the first priority, and who had in the Rudd government—the government, let it be remembered, of the man she knifed in breach of her solemn undertakings to support him; but that is another story—been the minister for education, first got the chance to form a government, she was so interested in tertiary education that it was added to Senator Evans's portfolio title as an afterthought. That is how serious they were.

Now we come to the consideration of the additional estimates for 2012. As I said earlier, at a time when the Prime Minister, as recently as yesterday afternoon, declared economic policy debate to be the central ground of contest for Australian politics this year, she has foreshortened the time of the economics committee to examine the economic portfolios; and Senator Arbib, through his motion, proposes to segregate the consideration of education by leaving the consideration of schools and early childhood where it ought to be and always has been—the education, employment and workplace relations estimates committee—and to move the examination of tertiary education and vocational education and training to the economics committee. Why would you do that, unless you were trying to foreshorten the opportunities of the Senate, through its estimates committee process, to engage in the economic debate and to hold the economic bureaucrats and the heads of the economic agencies to account? For what rational reason, when you have an estimates committee that has been established for the purpose of examining education, would you move consideration of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to the economics committee? For what purpose would you move examination of the Australian Skills Quality Authority from the education committee or the National Advisory for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment agency?

Senator Lundy interjecting

Senator McEwen: Lucky you're there!

Senator BRANDIS: Senator Mason will speak later in the debate. That is, as I am sure Senator Mason will explain, the principal agency responsible for assessing tertiary standards. Why would that not be considered in the education committee, where it always has been, rather than in the economics committee? There is no rational reason for this change—and when there is no rational reason, one looks for a malign reason. That is what the Gillard government has taught us. Senator Arbib is monkeying around with the arts and sport portfolios by putting them into the regional and rural affairs committee, but that is another story. I will come to that if I get time. Not only is the Gillard government making a dog's breakfast of the consideration of educational policy but also next week in the estimates process, by segregating out into an alien committee the consideration of tertiary education and vocational education and training, about a quarter of the time that would otherwise be available to consider the economic agencies and the Treasury will be lost. Under the guidelines or draft program prepared by, I am told, the secretariat, we will now have less than two hours to consider the macroeconomic group of Treasury. We will have no more than two hours to consider the fiscal group.

Senator Lundy: That's your choice!

Senator BRANDIS: No, it is not our choice, Senator Lundy. It is not our choice to give the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee insufficient work to do and to overburden and therefore to use the time of the economics committee so that the time for consideration of all of these economic agencies is foreshortened. I like you, Senator Lundy. You are a very good person, but you are not a very frequent participant in the Senate economics estimates committee. If you were, you would know that under the particularly expert scrutiny of Senator Mathias Cormann and Senator David Bushy, if I may single out two colleagues, the forensic examination of this govern­ment's policy and its policy failures through the examination of bureaucrats—or, I should say, senior public servants—in the macro­economic group has taken hours. These are not hours wasted but hours of fruitful inquiry. These have revealed, among other things, the scandal of the minerals resource rent tax where the assumptions, as it was revealed the year before last in the economics committee, did not stack up.

The modelling on which the forecasts were based was revealed to be wholly inade­quate, and the same or similar revelations were made about the carbon tax. The capaci­ty for the economics estimates committee to scrutinise at length in a forensic way the detail of economic policy and the assumpt­ions underlying that economic policy will be denied to it next week—and this at a time when the Prime Minister says she wants the economy to be front and centre.

The Senate estimates committees next week, if you add up all the different portfolios across the different estimates committees, will go for roughly 80 hours. Do you know how much time in that 80 hours, as a result of the motion Senator Arbib brought before the chamber, will be allowed for the examination of taxation and revenue?

Senator Fifield: No.

Senator BRANDIS: Two—there will be two hours for the examination of the revenue group of Treasury and the Australian Taxation Office. The great issues in Australia today, as the Prime Minister herself said, are the economic issues. Within those economic issues perhaps the greatest issue of all is the imposition on this country of a carbon tax, in defiance of a solemn promise not to introduce one, at the bidding of Senator Bob Brown. Yet to examine the tax policies of this government, the economic assumptions that underlie them and the consequences of them for Australian households, the Senate proposes to allow no more than two hours. It is a disgrace. The process of this chamber has been traduced in order to enable this government to attempt to avoid scrutiny.

I notice that Senator Mark Arbib, whose face I recognise—he is often described as one of the faceless men—

Senator Fifield: Not to us!

Senator BRANDIS: He is not a faceless man to us, Senator Fifield; we see him all too often. We notice that in the latest episode of political butchery by the Prime Minister he has displaced Senator Ludwig as the Manager of Government Business, so he is responsible for this outrage. I thought Senator Ludwig was a very hard player, but not even Senator Ludwig, I fear, would have been so shameless as to say that the consideration of taxation policy at the additional estimates—and in the year when the Prime Minister has declared economics and tax policy to be front and centre of the political argument—should not go for more than two hours. It is shameful.

Consideration of the arts and sport and local government—perhaps local govern­ment is not so objectionable—has bizarrely been moved into the regional affairs portfolio. It used to sit in the Prime Minister's office where, and I say this with some feeling as a former minister in that field, it might have attracted some priority. But now it has been sent to what is, at least in this government's eyes, the backwater of regional affairs.

This monkeying around with the Senate estimates committees, particularly the economics committee, has been done for one reason and one reason only: to prevent the opposition from holding this government to account for its shameful mismanagement of the economy.